Compassion Will Boost Your Business: Making The Case For Showing More Kindness At Work
Compassion is the glue that connects all other leadership attributes, and it's vital for connecting to others.
A couple of years ago, I gave a talk about why business leaders need to give more thought to others in the world when it comes to making environmental decision-making policies. On one of my slides was a photo of 100 Bangladeshis that had been flooded out of their homes due to climate change. When the image came up on the slide, I found myself unable to speak for a couple of minutes.
Back then, I wasn't used to crying during presentations, and I felt embarrassed. It was the first time I'd shown such a public reaction to the suffering of others, and the impact on the room was profound. Whenever I used the slide for the next two years, I had the same reaction. Reflecting on the first occasion, I realized that this was due to my personal growth in compassion. Compassion leads to passion and action, and our efforts as a company to reduce our environmental impact have become more driven even since.
If I had to narrow it down to one, compassion is the leadership characteristic that I would prioritize above all others. In today's troubled world, we need compassionate people now more than ever. Compassion is the glue that connects all other leadership attributes, and it's vital for connecting to others. It is also important to highlight the difference between empathy and compassion at this point, which, of course, work together. Empathy is all about connecting to other people's emotions, and feeling what another individual feels. It is a passive state, and doesn't require action.
Cover of Paul Hargreaves's book The Fourth Bottom Line: Flourishing in the New Era of Compassionate Leadership. Source: Paul Hargreaves.
Compassion, on the other hand, is an emotion that compels us to alleviate the sufferings of others. It's about being distressed, because someone is in physical or emotional pain. In my case, the connection to the homeless Bangladeshis propelled me into action to change the way my company worked, and that began our journey to carbon neutrality and continues to drive us as we aim for net zero by 2030. True compassion is hard to imagine without an emotional element that can kick start us into action, as it did during my talk. Compassion without action is a paradox, and, as Prince said, "Compassion is an action word."
In his book Descartes' Error, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio shows how the limbic, emotional part of the brain is a strong factor in our decision-making. We can probably all recall a time when we have had an emotional response to something that we've seen on social media, which has caused us to take some form of action. Our compassion will be diminished unless there is some form of action. If we are going to be called compassionate leaders, other people need to see our actions, and not just our tears.
We tend to think in the West that if we don't look after ourselves and our own happiness first, then we will be less content– but this is not the case. The truth is that we will increase our own happiness and contentment by reaching out to others with compassion, and putting them before ourselves. As the Dalai Lama says: "If you want to be happy, practice compassion." Many people discovered the fulfilment of reaching out to others during the COVID-19 pandemic- and it was through volunteering in our communities and cities that improved our own sense of wellbeing. Eastern religions including Buddhism and Hinduism talk extensively about compassion, and it's no coincidence that there is a wider sense of wellbeing and community in many of these regions.
It is also good to practice compassion towards those close to us, as well as those we don't know. We will become better mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, if we enter other people's sufferings as if they are our own. Some may find it challenging to practice compassion with those close to them, if they come from a family at the lower end of the emotional spectrum. I've met people who find themselves crying at the end of a sad film, but have difficulty engaging with people they love with compassion. It's something that's common in our society, but compassion will become second nature with enough practice.
During the last 50 years, leaders that operate with high levels of compassion have been few and far between– but if there are any characteristics that leaders need more than any other in this third decade of the 21st century, it is compassion. Are you ready for the challenge? Every day is an opportunity to practice compassion- here are a few ways to put that into action:
Find a picture in a magazine or online of people who are less fortunate than yourself. Imagine that you are them, feeling what they are feeling and longing for what they long for, and try to connect yourself with their suffering.
Next, imagine someone you know, but don't particularly like. Think good thoughts, or pray for them, if you are inclined that way. Hope for good things for them.
During the day, reach out with compassion to someone who may need some love at work, or at the shops, or at the school gate. As we actively practice compassion, the feelings will flow too.